It's impossible to predict bullpens.
Relief pitchers are by far the sport's most volatile commodity, their performances notoriously fluctuating from year to year.
And yet, I'm still fairly comfortable making this prediction: The Padres' bullpen should be very good in 2023.
There are holes to fill elsewhere on the roster. But San Diego has built a fearsome relief corps for the 2023 season. Here’s a look at how it might shake out:
Back end: Josh Hader and Robert Suarez
Hader endured his share of struggles upon his arrival in San Diego last summer. Those already feel like ancient history considering the way he performed in October. Hader struck out each of the last eight hitters he faced during a postseason run in which he fully reverted to the dominant version of himself -- perhaps even better.
It's also hugely important that the Padres were able to bring back Suarez (particularly with Hader set to hit free agency next offseason).
"It's a really nice pairing with [Hader] and Robert," general manager A.J. Preller said earlier this offseason. "When you look at the commitment we made, we feel like Robert could pitch the seventh, eighth, ninth. He could pitch any of those spots against the best parts of a lineup.
"If you're winning a championship, you're going to need multiple guys who can do that."
The Padres have exactly that.
Middle innings: Luis García, Tim Hill, Steven Wilson, Adrian Morejon, Nabil Crismatt
The righty García and the lefty Hill are at the forefront of these options. Both turned in solid performances in 2022 that went largely under the radar, and both should fill similar roles in '23.
Beyond those two, there's a bit less certainty in this group. Morejon, the team has said, might be stretched toward a starter's workload. But it's easy to envision him serving as something of a swing-man -- similar to the role Nick Martinez filled last year.
Crismatt, now out of options, could remain as the team's do-everything innings-eater. Meanwhile, Wilson emerged as a reliable righty presence for the middle innings last season.
X-factor: Drew Pomeranz
How does the Padres' bullpen to go from good to great this season? A healthy Pomeranz.
By Opening Day, it will have been 20 months since Pomeranz last took a big league mound. He underwent surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in August of 2021 -- a surgery with a tricky recovery that rarely follows a specific timetable. As such, Pomeranz never quite worked his way back to full strength in '22.
But when he's healthy, it's worth remembering just how dominant Pomeranz can be. He signed a lucrative four-year deal with the Padres prior to the 2020 season -- a deal that now seems foolhardy, considering Pomeranz has pitched only 44 1/3 innings since. But in those 44 1/3 innings, Pomeranz owns a 1.62 ERA with 59 strikeouts.
The Padres shouldn't be relying on Pomeranz to chew up innings in their bullpen this year. But if they can keep him healthy and fresh enough -- and they seemingly have the depth to do so -- he could serve as the unit's secret weapon. Pomeranz is eyeing a return by Opening Day.
“I’m going at a very conservative throwing program, but one that still gets me ready to start the year on time normally,” Pomeranz told MLB Network Radio last week. “Everything’s progressing as nicely as I would’ve hoped for.”
Depth options: Sean Poppen, Jose Lopez, José Castillo, Michel Baez, Tom Cosgrove, Craig Stammen and other NRIs
If you're counting, we've already named eight pitchers in the above categories -- and that's almost certainly the number of relievers the Padres would open the season with. But these are relief pitchers we're talking about. They're volatile. They're also prone to injury. There's practically zero chance San Diego's bullpen race unfolds precisely according to plan this spring.
That's where the depth options come into play. Lopez was a Rule 5 selection, so the Padres must keep him on their roster or offer him back to Tampa Bay. Castillo boasts huge upside as well, coming off his first healthy season since 2018. And the Padres also brought back Stammen on a Minors deal to serve as further depth.
On the whole, it's a balanced and well-constructed group of arms. If the back end of the rotation features a few question marks right now, it’s possible this bullpen could mask some of the rotation's shortcomings.
Which pitcher holds the Padres' single-season saves record?
A) Heath Bell
B) Mark Davis
C) Goose Gossage
D) Trevor Hoffman
• Nelson Cruz sure feels like a nice fit for this roster – and at $1 million for one year, he’s a low-risk addition as well. Cruz, of course, is 43, so it’d be unfair to expect him to reach some of his past heights.
But the Padres won’t ask him to play every day and hit 40-plus homers. Matt Carpenter should see the bulk of the team’s reps at DH this season. Cruz, meanwhile, will likely start at DH against left-handed pitching, otherwise coming off the bench as a late-inning pinch-hit weapon.
Think back to the 2022 postseason. San Diego built itself a productive lineup, but its bench options were lacking in October. Preller has done a solid job this winter in addressing that deficiency.
• The last thing on the Padres’ to-do list this winter: Add one more depth option for the rotation. They’re already solid at the top with Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove. Martinez and Seth Lugo could very well fill out the starting five. But one more starter is necessary, considering the fickle nature of pitching depth.
If (or more likely when) the Padres add that starter, don’t forget the value of Martinez and Lugo, who will open the season in the rotation. It’s possible one (or both) could wind up in the bullpen later in the year. Both have proven themselves very capable of handling that role. San Diego’s relief options are, indeed, plentiful.
D) Hoffman saved 53 games for the 1998 pennant-winning Padres. Bell's 47 saves in 2010 rank second on the franchise's single-season list.
It's never easy to follow a legend, but Bell did so admirably, taking the mantle from Hoffman in 2009 and ultimately racking up 154 saves -- second most in Padres history. Here's Bell pitching two scoreless extra innings against the Rockies in 2008:
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